I've always written...
When I was young, ten or eleven, I used to write stories. They always had grand proportions. Everything was the start of a trilogy. I was young, so these grand plans always fell apart after ten or fifteen handwritten pages, wide-ruled, of course.
I also used to write songs. Arbitrary little ditties, using the keyboard my parents got me. I'd record a line, play it back and play another line on top. And sing some nonsensical lyrics. Can't remember many, but at least one was about being a hobbit. These were recorded on cassette and rarely played.
When I hit middle school and high school, I kept writing those long stories. Grand plans. Outlines started popping out. I read voraciously, learning from fantasy authors, and the occasional sci-fi author. Dialogue was clunky. Oh so clunky. Descriptions were interesting, but I had no concept of how to have characters interact. It always felt so...fake.
My musical writing was much the same way. I had progressed to occasionally writing things down. I did some arrangements and reharmonizations. Most of the work was...subpar. But I had a strong grasp of theory, so most things were coherent.
Poetry...oh poetry. I had no grasp of the rhythm of poetry. I could tell you about dactyls and alexandrine verse. The knowledge was there, but the feeling was all wrong. It was mixed with music. Long and short, stressed and unstressed...I could pat my leg in rhythm, count stresses based on an arbitrary tempo. When I wrote, my brain worked the same way. The verses wouldn't work without specific setting. They were all "free" even when I tried to write a sonate in iambic pentameter. This all popped up in high school, presumably because I liked the cavalier poets and Shakespeare.
I had one arrangement played in high school, "American Pie" by John McLean. Somewhere, I have a recording of it. No idea about orchestration. Only basic ideas of arranging. It was atrocious. But I was learning. Hearing it played, I knew it was bad.
College hits. Writing became an regular effort, but not creatively. Research, research, research. Learn MLA, Turabian, in-text, footnote, endnote, grammar grammar grammar. I nearly failed my first paper in college. The idea of writing a novel left. Short-stories never manifested. Poetry was a 2am distraction, often in the summer when I wasn't writing papers. Paper topics were often lame, unoriginal, too often biographies or just descriptions. Wasn't until my senior year I tried to get interesting, inventive. Comparisons of orchestrational methods, Biblicism and mysticism in the Quartet for the End of Time. But it was still rehashing ideas--there were volumes published on it. I wasn't saying anything original.
The music I wrote in undergrad was better. The first that was really something was theory driven. There was counterpoint, mostly canonic. It followed a set progression, moving steadily through the work. ABA form, same texture throughout. It was definitely coherent, the theme and general idea interesting enough. It's been performed three times now. Later, I worked with Carlos Carrillo. I wrote a trombone and piano piece that was more free. Roughly sonata form, more adventurous in all ways. Not a bad piece, for a young student. An early string quartet movement I still toute as being the greatest work in the literature because "You can start and stop at any point and it'll work!" A single piece for mixed chamber ensemble that I'd still like to hear played at some point. And a piece for trombone and string orchestra that I toured. The orchestra director felt bad--he programmed a Haydn symphony as the big piece; no trombone part. So, Carlos and I convinced Geno to let me write something short. It's not a bad piece, I was trying hard...and learning, always learning.
I headed off for a masters (eventually). My writing got better, but not after being ripped apart and put back together. Academic, always academic. But I hated the style of prose, so I said screw it, took my own tone. The teachers found it refreshing in one sense, but it needed tightened. The pendulum swung again, too far...academic-ese starting creeping in again. Still, always struggling with how little I knew of writing. The poetry was mostly gone now...hard to read Bukowski and think "yeah, my poetry is alright." I quit because I sucked, and I had no time to possibly get better...especially by fumbling in the dark. Research was all I knew of writing.
Music...I wrote a great deal. And I got better. Much better. It's amazing what guidance can do. The questions, the realizations. Sometimes theory and system driven, other times "intuitive." There were notated and improvisational pieces. A text piece made a scene. An "interactive" piece involving a video, arbitrarily triggered sound files, and poetry by Jack Kerouac got a good review. And an opera. Oh, the opera...
I didn't write the words of the opera. Well, not expressly. I worked on the libretto. Painstakingly. It was passed between myself and the original writer, Eileen Wiedbrauk. It was forced into a shape, turning thoughts into dialogue, descriptions into scenery, words into action. I learned a lot...and didn't think I destroyed the original which had captured my imagination so well.
Doctorate. Oh Doctorate. My academic prose was called "too academic." But when shown to others they said "No, it's very easy to read and colloquial." I was confused. Editing...editing was my bane. I realized it always had been. It was like having my ideas slain before me, their blood spilling across the page with every mark. But I had to learn, and with help, it got better. A paper was picked up for a conference...I presented and then published my first academic paper. It's been presented two more times now. And it hurts every time because I still see problems staring me in the face, taunting me.
I churned pieces out, was getting some performances. People thought some of the music was neat, started getting repeat performances. It seemed insane to me, having pieces picked up for festivals. I had to travel a bit. And I got better, more fluid. Orchestration became the primary focus, timbres swirling...themes, development, form, anyone could do that. But the whole, the entire sound, was all me. Old and new structures intermingled--isorhythm with nested time domains, scales with spectralism, traditional notation with graphic scores. Everything mingled.
Playwriting. I wanted to do another opera. Or a few operas. Dramatic works. Bigger, better, more coherent. I took the class not to become a writer, but to become a better composer. If I could finally start to understand how it was put together. We talked about many things--conflict, stakes, offstage urgency, dialogue creating action, strong and clear ideas, subtext, onstage discoveries. I wrote...But more than anything, I edited. I edited as I wrote. My writing got better, forced into a workshop as a non-writer, around people finishing degrees or entering in with more experience. One play has gone through eight edits. It's almsot right...It's been performed, and I'm editing it again. Something I've never done with a paper...and something I've never done with music.
An opera. I wrote the words this time. The music was somewhat formulaic, somewhat intuitive. There was subtext, not just in the words, but in the music. No quotation, but allusions, recognizable styles and ideas. The story had conflict, and so did the music...at times it was edgy, at other times as stereotypical as it could be. You could hear Schubert lied, Mozart and Verdi, jazz, even a bit of Ferneyhough, though only the smallest portion. And where was I? In every sound, altering it, letting through only what I wanted to come through...
It's been quite a journey, but I'm finding my creative home. Dialogue wasn't really the issue, it was the strength. The medium was the issue--I knew what the characters wanted to say, but I couldn't have them say it the way I wanted in strict prose. But in a play, I can. It's about the characters, a scene, nested themes, plots, and actions. Meaning everywhere, sometimes where you least expect it. A language I can speak.
My music follows the same course. I'm finally finding that language, the mix of everything, where I fit in.
And I still dream big...big projects, big ideas. But now, maybe, after years of preparation, I may finally be ready.
The full length opera is coming to the world soon. But there's still much work to be done